“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” This is what the Dodo says to Alice after she and the other characters have run the Caucus-race in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. We laugh at the nonsense of this statement as we read the story, but of course this principle is practiced in many children’s sports leagues, where kids are given what are called “participation trophies” at the end of the season simply for playing in games. NFL linebacker James Harrison got media attention last month when he posted on social media that he would be sending back the participation trophies his two sons had recently received. He wrote on Instagram, “These trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”
When I heard about it, I admit that I make a few jokes about “participation trophies” and how lame it is to reward people for basically nothing. I mean, rewards and recognition are for people who earn them, right? Isn’t it unfair to the team that actually wins the championship to hand out trophies to any kid who plays, no matter how good he or she is?
Then I happened to read Matthew 20—and I realized that I needed to rethink some things. The main point of the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 is this: in the kingdom of God, the under-achievers who don’t measure up (and whom nobody wants) are put on the same pedestal as those who excel and “go all the way.” This is because the kingdom of God operates on the principle of grace, not merit and entitlement. Let me summarize the parable to explain what I mean. (I highly recommend you go and read Matthew 20:1-16 before moving on to the next paragraph.)
Jesus’ story is about a man who owns a vineyard, and goes out early in the morning (about 6 AM) to the marketplace to hire workers to harvest in his fields. He finds some workers and makes an agreement with them: if they will work in his vineyard all day (from 6 AM to 6 PM), he will pay them a “denarius”, which was a fair payment for a full day’s work.
So the laborers agree, and head out to work. So far, so good. But a few hours later, around 9 AM, the landowner goes back out to the marketplace and sees more workers who haven’t been hired yet. So he offers them a job, too, only this time he doesn’t tell them exactly how much he will pay them, but only says “whatever is right I will give you.” They go out and work alongside those who have been there since the sun came up.
But the landowner is not finished. He goes out again at noon, and again at 3 PM, and both times he finds people looking for jobs in the marketplace. The landowner does the same thing he did at 9 AM—he sends them out to work in his vineyard, and promises them that “whatever is right I will give you.”
Amazingly, the landowner goes out again at 5 PM—just one hour before quitting time—and finds some laborers standing around. He says to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” And they respond, “Because no one has hired us.” So the landowner sends them into his vineyard also, but doesn’t tell them how much they will be paid. One hour later, at quitting time, he calls everybody up to receive their pay.
He pays them in groups—first, the late hires (those who came in at 5 PM) are paid, and incredibly they are paid a full denarius. Then the 3 PM workers are paid, and the 12 noon workers, and the 9 AM workers, and finally the people who worked the entire 12-hour day, from 6 AM to 6 PM. These workers, the “elite” ones who worked harder and better than the rest, thought that surely they would be paid more. But to their surprise, they are given a denarius just like everybody else. And they are none too pleased.
They complain and say to the landowner, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” So the landowner turns to one of them and says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
And with that, Jesus concludes his story—a story designed to teach us what “the kingdom of heaven is like”—and drops this bomb: “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Notice two things about this story. First, notice that the kingdom of God operates on the principle of grace, not merit and entitlement. Clearly, some have worked harder than others. And the story suggests that the last workers not only didn’t work as hard as the rest, but that they couldn’t. The workers who are hired at 5 PM didn’t just show up in the marketplace too late to get a job. When they are asked why they aren’t working, their response is that “no one has hired us.” In other words, they got passed over because they were not as desirable as the others. They are like the kids who get picked last in gym class. They are rejects. But the landowner—who represents God in the parable—graciously gives them an opportunity to earn a living anyway. So the kingdom of God is not only for the strong and elite people who live moral lives and serve God in amazing and powerful ways. It is also—and especially—for the weak people who can only accomplish a fraction of what others can. The rejects are let into the kingdom just like the strong, and once they are in, they are not told to get out of the way while the important people do all of the important stuff. They are “made equal.” Scandalous! The last will be first, as Jesus said.
Second, notice that the ones who complain about the landowner’s generosity are not the heroes of the story. The elite workers actually do not understand the way the kingdom of God works. They are rebuked by the landowner! They think they are special, that they should be the exclusive recipients of the highest privileges in the kingdom of God. But they are wrong. They scoff at the rejected workers’ participation trophies, and get scolded in front of everybody else. How the tables have turned! As readers we wonder, “What happens to them? Do they make it into the kingdom.” We don’t know for sure, but we do know that Jesus says “the first [will be] last.” And what makes them last is not the fact that they are strong and able-bodied, but because they objected to the landowner’s kindness to weak and undesirable people.
The kingdom of God operates on the principle of grace, not merit and entitlement. This is because in reality, there are no strong people. All are equally undeserving of the kingdom. All need to be given a place in the kingdom, because none have earned it. Only by faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ can we enter in at all. We are all under-achievers and rejects, and if we enter the kingdom of God at all, it must be by grace. Praise God for that grace!